For 42-year-old Grace Gumura of Machemba Village, Traditional Authority Chimaliro in Thyolo District, it was the manure, the hides and the milk that dairy farming had to offer that attracted her to the trade.
“I thought this was my ticket to happiness as I would be able to support my family through dairy farming in addition to paying for my children’s education,’ says Grace, a single mother of four.
Years have passed since she embarked on the journey to her dream of making it in life through farming.
She has managed to support her children in education up to secondary school through dairy farming.
She is also a member of Namagoya Milk Bulking Group where, together with other farmers, Grace has found a place to store and sale the milk from her two cows.
“Apart from dairy farming, I am growing maize and other crops that have supported me to provide food for my family,” Grace said.
As a member of a milk bulking group, Grace has found a ready market and storage facility for her milk.
Every morning, Grace and other farmers line up at the facility to have their milk tested, graded, weighed and stored in the cooler awaiting various companies to come and collect the milk.
The milk quantity and quality is recorded in a book before payments are made to the farmers at end of the month.
Over 300,000 litres of milk are collected from the farmers on a daily basis.
“We are glad that we now have a storage facility and a ready market for our milk, which has assisted in preventing losses due to lack of proper storage facilities,” Grace says.
Like many dairy farmers, Grace is not so happy with the prices offered by companies which buy their produce.
A litre of milk in Malawi is sold at K230 on wholesale, an amount farmers say is far too low compared to what they invest.
“That is why we want the government to help us so that we, the farmers, should determine the prices other than the companies as is the case now,” Grace says.
Like Grace, Chisoso Taulo, another dairy farmer in the area, says milk is more than a product.
“This is our very livelihood because, with the land issues here, all we can afford is a house with a kraal behind where we raise the dairy cattle and, for a long time now, we have managed to do a lot including constructing modern houses, buying motor cycles and sending our children to school,” Chisoso narrates.
He, however, laments limited storage space for the bulk of milk that the farmers bring to the facility.
“We need more refrigerators so that all the milk that the farmers bring here has space to avoid losses,” Chisoso says.
But limited storage is just one of the challenges that the dairy farmers, especially in rural areas, have to fend off in order to realise the potential that farming has to transform lives.
In January this year, Malawi experienced one of the worst natural disasters in recent history.
The Tropical Storm Ana-induced floods damaged the Kapichira Power Station which has since then remained shut down, robbing the country of the about 130 megawatts of electricity the station used to contribute to the national grid.
The development has led to unprecedented power blackouts that have affected most sectors including the dairy industry, mostly rural-based farmers.
Dairy farmers under Mangunda milk bulking group at Kasalika Village in Thyolo District have been especially hit hard by the power outages.
Since the blackouts started in January this year, the group has lost about K18 million worth of milk to blackouts.
The group’s representative Alias Piringu confirmed the loss of 80,000 litres of milk during the period due to the blackouts.
“This is no small amount to us, farmers, who are already trying hard to improve our livelihoods through dairy farming,” Piringu says.
Piringu says the group has over the time managed to buy a backup generator which is too small and not able to run the two big refrigerators that are used to store milk that the over 300 hundred farmers bring to the facility for storage and sale on a daily basis.
“We need support, in form of more refrigerators and backup generators, so that we prevent such huge losses whenever there are blackouts,” Piringu says.
Piringu’s call reverberates that of the other farmers at Namahoya milk bulking group, like Grace and Chisoso.
But such calls have been made before.
They could be on the verge of being answered now as a new programme, Transforming Agriculture through Diversification and Entrepreneurship (Trade), which seeks to contribute to improved sustainable livelihoods of rural communities in Malawi through increased value chain commercialisation and resilience of smallholder producers, is set to start working with the farmers in Malawi.
The programme targets 127,000 rural farming households in Chitipa, Karonga, Rumphi, Nkhatabay, Ntchisi, Kasungu, Mchinji, Lilongwe, Dedza, Blantyre and Thyolo districts.
It will provide them with enabling infrastructure as well as access to financial schemes including business development services.
The programme which is under the Ministry of Local Government, will also improve linkages between farmers and value chains by establishing profitable and efficient markets and partnerships for farmers.
Trade Programme Public Relations Officer Oscar Ulili admitted recently that dairy farmers are indeed facing various challenges in the country.
“That is why we would like to affirm our commitment that we will support them (the farmers) to start looking at farming as a viable business. We understand that the farmers, especially those in rural areas, need support; they need good storage facilities, backup power equipment and profitable markets for their produce which we are willing to support,” Ulili said.
Eric Msikiti is a Senior Reporter/News Producer at Times Group. Though relatively young, Eric boasts years of experience in Malawi’s media industry.